The Language of Online Abuse – Seven Forms of Antisocial Behaviour

Reblogged from the English & Media Centre’s emagazine.

If we were to look only at the media, it would be easy to think that online abuse only started recently. From about 2010 onwards, we find a continually increasing number of stories of celebrities receiving online abuse. However, the perspective that the media provides can give a fairly skewed impression of what’s actually happening. Firstly, famous people are not the only ones to suffer antisocial online behaviour – just about anyone can find themselves on the receiving end of hurtful, offensive, and threatening messages. Secondly, internet abuse has been around only a little while less than the internet itself – around forty years. And thirdly, there is a surprising number of antisocial online behaviours, ranging from the mildly annoying through to the extremely dangerous. To start with this last point first, it’s worth knowing about just a few of the types of antisocial online behaviour, but for reasons of space, we’ll cover just seven.

At the lowest end of the scale is flaming, which is typically an over-reaction to a genuine provocation. For instance, one person disagrees with another, and instead of simply shrugging it off as might occur face-to-face, the discussion escalates into a heated argument. Trolling is a term often used by the media to describe an enormous range of behaviours, but for simplicity’s sake, we can think of it as deliberately trying to aggravate any target (typically a stranger) usually for the sake of amusement.

Cyberbullying differs from trolling in that it has a specific target that the bully probably also knows offline, and it is focussed on causing emotional hurt or psychological harm. Cyberharassment, like cyberbullying, usually has a specific target, but that target could be a business, organisation, or government, and the strategies may involve more technologically-based attacks, such as crashing websites or stealing and publishing sensitive information. Cyberstalking is also like cyberbullying in that the stalker has a specific target in mind, but it is more serious in that there is a genuine risk of the stalker carrying out offline harm.

Online grooming involves an individual inciting someone into doing something harmful to themselves or others. This may be a perpetrator grooming a child for sexual abuse, but it can also involve others encouraging a target to self-harm, commit suicide, or carry out extremist acts. And finally, online predation involves deceiving a target online to carry out an offline crime against them. For instance, a target may respond to a fake job advert or dating profile, unaware that the “interview” or “date” is being set up by the predator as an opportunity for committing robbery, rape, murder, and so on.

Overall, then, online abuse is far bigger and more complex than might initially appear. Some of these behaviours also don’t appear to have any real equivalent offline, or don’t occur to the same extreme. That makes it important to understand just what it is about the internet that seems to facilitate these behaviours. When we look at online versus offline communication, several key factors suggest themselves.

Firstly, the internet is especially predisposed towards misunderstandings. Without the other person’s voice, face, and eyes, it can be much easier to assume the wrong tone of voice or meaning to a message. Alongside this, we seem to automatically assume “bad intentions” far more quickly online. Offline, if someone doesn’t answer our greeting, we may wonder if they were distracted, but online we seem to leap much more quickly to the assumption that they were being deliberately rude.

Secondly, the internet offers users anonymity, and this can engender a feeling of safety. Offline, if we are rude to others, there are many potential consequences. The target may react badly or even dangerously. People we care about may be angry or embarrassed, leading them to shun, expel, or fire us. And if our behaviour is criminal, we could end up in prison. For some, fear of these social and legislative penalties is a far more powerful inhibitor of unpleasant behaviour than moral or empathetic considerations. As a result, anonymity can give them the sense that they are safe from all of those consequences, and they may slip into online behaviour that is increasingly hurtful, antisocial, and aggressive.

Thirdly, whether we like to acknowledge this or not, a major factor is entertainment. Humans especially enjoy “consuming” aggression and violence (e.g. horror films, dangerous sports) or simulating violence (e.g. violent games). Few like the risk of being directly involved offline, but online, the internet offers the illusion to some that they can directly attack others without potentially being hurt in return.

Whilst the above begins to explain why the internet is such a breeding ground for online abuse, however, there is more to this issue than just misunderstandings, anonymity, and entertainment. We also need to take into account the individuals who produce the behaviour. Some otherwise-empathetic people may end up behaving unpleasantly online because they perceive their behaviour differently to the way that the target sees it. For instance, not all online groups are the same, and a user may experience a clash of norms when something that their old group valued or found funny is deemed extremely offensive in a new one. Another aspect is that it is easier to forget to be empathetic online. In other words, we can lose sight of the fact that we are talking to other human beings with thoughts and feelings, and even if reminded of this by the other person, it is much easier to underestimate, downplay, or even disbelieve what they say.

Individuals may find ways of minimising their behaviour to themselves, by reframing it as something more socially acceptable, such as a joke or banter. Others may (mistakenly) think that freedom of expression gives them an absolute right to say anything to anyone, no matter how offensive or intimidating. In reality, of course, behaviours such as incitement, threats, and defamation are actually against the law.

At the more extreme end, some online abusers may even blame the victim for what is happening to them. For instance, such individuals may say that celebrity put themselves in the public eye and so have asked to be attacked, or that someone who is being sent abuse on a social network should leave it if they don’t like how they are being treated. Some may even try to entirely turn the tables and play the victim by claiming that the target is actually the one who is doing some form of wrong, and that they are simply trying to defend themselves or others from that person.

When we look at how people go about being antisocial online, we find a potentially endless list that ranges from mild annoyance to extreme intimidation. At the lowest end of this scale, we find users deliberately aggravating others by digressing from a group or thread’s given topic, repeat-posting, asking inflammatory questions designed to look innocent, and so on. They may more openly cause discord by criticising others, sometimes for the very behaviour that they themselves are guilty of. Or they may take this to an extreme by trying to shock others through obscenities, taboo topics, being deeply insensitive, and so on.

Not all are satisfied with only causing online harm, however. Some users seek to deliberately endanger others by giving bad advice or setting a dangerous example in an attempt to cause offline harm. They may try to incite targets into hurting themselves or others via bullying, manipulation, or coercion. And a minority may even threaten to harm the target offline, in an effort to cause severe psychological distress and fear.

From all of the above, it should be clear that there is work to be done to make the internet safer. We need to educate young people to be both safe and kind online. Equally, we need to help parents and caregivers to take care of those young people and help them should things go wrong. At a higher level, many websites need to offer users greater protection, whilst the ability of the police to tackle online abuse would benefit from greater resources and training. At the highest level, prosecuting the most serious online abuse would be aided by improved legislation and guidance, particularly with regards to how certain behaviours are defined, standards of evidence, and the complications of jurisdiction.

Of course, any one of these areas will take years to address, and at the end of this article, it would be easy to think that the internet is such a bad place that the effort isn’t worthwhile. In reality, however, after only a few short decades, the internet has improved our lives in ways that were simply unimaginable. It offers us far more good than bad – life-saving information, new ideas, exposure to different cultures, more ways to socialise, instant access to entertainment, and infinitely more besides. Just like any new technology, in the process of settling into the fabric of society, however, it has thrown up challenges, and the next step of the evolution is for us to face those challenges in the long term.